Iran's Double Game in Afghanistan

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Nov 20, 2017
Iran's Double Game in Afghanistan

In a meeting today in Tehran with the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamo, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif raised concern about the growing presence of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, the Iranian media reported. Zarif emphasized that the Islamic Republic is ready to expand its cooperation with the U.N. and the Afghan government to counter the ISIS threat in Afghanistan and the broader region. “Iran seeks stability in Afghanistan and is making efforts in this regard,” the Iranian foreign minister stressed. The two sides also discussed ways to find a political settlement with the Taliban to end the 16-year war in Afghanistan. Zarif also noted that Tehran wants to further enhance its economic and trade ties with Afghanistan. The top Iranian diplomat also reiterated Tehran’s support for the national unity government of Afghanistan.

Comment: Since the fall of the Taliban 16 years ago, Iran has played both sides of the conflict in Afghanistan.

On the one hand, Tehran has cultivated close ties with Kabul and contributed to Afghanistan’s rebuilding process. Iran has also emerged as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner as relations between Kabul and Islamabad has been deteriorating. Last year, Afghanistan, Iran and India signed a trilateral agreement to establish an international transit corridor through the Iranian city of Chabahar – which has reduced landlocked Afghanistan’s dependency on Pakistan’s Gwadar port. The first shipment of wheat from India arrived in southwestern Afghanistan through Chabahar port earlier this month.

At the same time, however, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) has over the decade provided training, money, arms and sanctuary to Taliban militants to pressure the U.S. military forces to leave the country. The Iranian government has also used its ties with the Taliban to seek political concessions from the Kabul government. Lately, the Afghan government has become more vocal about Iran’s relationship with and support for the Taliban. In September, for example, the Chief of General Staff for the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces said that the Kabul government has evidence that Iran is providing weapons and other military assets to the Taliban in western Afghanistan. In an interview with the BBC Persian, Lieutenant General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali added that President Ashraf Ghani discussed the issue with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in Tehran in August but did not disclose details of the meeting. He stressed that the Afghan government wants to resolve the issue through “dialogue and understanding”

Lately, Iran has been particularly alarmed by the growth of ISIS in Afghanistan. Tehran fears that the terrorist group can infiltrate into Iran by recruiting disenchanted Sunni youth in its southeast and northwest regions. The Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, has long suffered low-intensity insurgency. To counter the threat, Iran, according to Afghan officials, has expanded its support to Taliban groups in western Afghanistan to create a buffer zone and keep ISIS at bay. But given that most ISIS militants in Afghanistan are Taliban splinters, Tehran is indeed exacerbating the terrorism problem that destabilizes Afghanistan and increasingly threaten Iran as well.

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